'Joyce Chen’s China': How a Film Used Food to Bridge a Cold-War Divide

Joyce Chen’s eyes water as she looks into the camera and reads aloud the letter of intent in her 1972 Chinese visa application. Twenty-three years earlier, she fled China’s Communist Revolution, only to watch a chasm grow between her birthplace and the United States, her adopted home. In the time since, she had used cooking as a tool to reach across that expanse, opening up a landmark Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaching thousands of Americans to cook her home’s cuisine through classes, cookbooks, and a television show.

“Before I die, I hope I will visit my homeland,” she read aloud. “Then I can come back, give a deep, [true] report to the United States friends. And I hope that both [countries] can understand more, and then they also can build a better friendship.”

In 1972, Chen’s wish came true. In the months after U.S. President Richard Nixon flew to China and resumed ties with the pariah state, she and her two youngest children would become part of the first wave of Americans in more than 20 years to step foot on Chinese soil. But unlike most early visitors, Chen’s son, Stephen, brought a video camera, recording the people, the sights, and the food of a country that held their roots but was poorly understood—and often vilified—in most American households.

The Chens’ efforts would become Joyce Chen’s China, which its producers called the first documentary about China ever filmed by a Chinese-American family. The film offers a warm and at times dazzling view of the Middle Kingdom that is rare even today—much less in the middle of the Cold War.

Chen in the dining room of her restaurant in 1973.
Chen in the dining room of her restaurant in 1973. Courtesy Stephen Chen

Joyce Chen was born Liao Jia Ai in Beijing in 1917. Growing up in a wealthy family with a paid cook, she learned her way around the kitchen by hovering at the side of the family chef. By the time she was 18, she was already hosting dinners for house guests. This enterprising streak persisted throughout her life. As a young adult, she sold insurance in the male-dominated freight-shipping industry. When the Communist Revolution appeared on the horizon and businesspeople became its targets, Chen ignored friends’ pleas to wait the turmoil out at home and convinced her husband, Thomas, that they needed to leave. In 1949, the couple secured American tourist visas and took their two children, Henry and Helen, to Massachusetts, to seek political asylum. (Stephen, the youngest, was born in 1952, in Cambridge.)

They arrived as the country was exiting its most extreme phase of anti-Chinese discrimination. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had denied Chinese-Americans U.S. citizenship while barring Chinese laborers from immigrating, all on the grounds that Chinese people were racially inferior. It was repealed in 1943, but anti-Asian ire remained fierce as many Americans blamed all Asians for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the government interned thousands of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in the years afterward.

After the Communist Revolution in 1949, Chen lost all contact with friends and family in mainland China—even letters were off limits. Stephen believes that this isolation was hard for her, and she would occasionally mention that people in China were struggling, but she rarely spoke about her predicament with her children. “I think my mother’s coping mechanism was to keep busy,” Stephen says.

Chen quickly became busy indeed. In 1955, she prepared egg rolls for a charity event at her children’s predominantly white private school, where the Chens were the only Chinese students. The thick-skinned, pork-and-cabbage-stuffed rolls sold out within an hour. Parents asked for the recipe, and soon Chen was teaching cooking classes out of the kitchen in her family’s Cambridge duplex.

In 1958, she opened the Joyce Chen Restaurant, a 250-seat establishment with white tablecloths, black-and-white-checkered linoleum floors, and walls dotted with Chinese art—sparsely, because art from China was hard to come by at the time. She offered the chop suey and chow mein that American diners in the ’50s expected while also pushing their boundaries with moo shoo pork, soup dumplings, and Peking duck. Those more traditional dishes were so popular that she dropped the Americanized ones on the second printing of the menu. The restaurant’s buffet, which she opened to drum up business on slow weeknights, became so heavily trafficked that she and Thomas, who helped manage Chen’s restaurant at the time, played cha-cha music to spur patrons into picking up their food quickly.

By the mid-1970s, she presided over four Cambridge restaurants, including a two-floor, 350-seat space with chefs who specialized in the Northern and Shanghainese dishes of Chen’s other restaurants along with Sichuanese ones like vinegary yuxiang eggplant and funky, spicy mapo tofu. The eateries drew a who’s-who of Cambridge elite, counting Nobel Prize–winning economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard president Nathan Pusey, and French cooking luminary Julia Child among their devotees.

Chen’s businesses were a master class in nailing complex Chinese recipes under American constraints. To help her customers understand potstickers, she called them “Peking ravioli,” a term that has since been adopted in English-language menus around the world. In 1962, Chen self-published The Joyce Chen Cookbook, which was an instant success, selling 6,000 copies to diners in Chen’s restaurants before it was even printed. In the book, Chen guided readers through Chinese ingredients, cooking utensils, and recipes, occasionally adapting them to the American supermarket: Her famous egg roll recipe calls for half a pound of meat from a “good hamburger.”

Chen's restaurant in 1958.
Chen’s restaurant in 1958. Courtesy Stephen Chen

While it might not have the same blockbuster popularity as, say, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The Joyce Chen Cookbook had a lasting impact on many home cooks and professional chefs. New York Times food writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt put her mid-century tome on his list of favorite food books, writing that among among his cookbooks, Chen’s has been “perhaps the most influential of them all” on his cooking, and that it introduced his family to delicious, traditional Chinese dishes such as “moo shi pork” in the 1970s and ’80s. He adds, “even if you never pick up a copy of her outdated, out-of-print cookbook, even if you aren’t a big fan of Northern Chinese cuisine, I can flat out guarantee that Joyce Chen has changed the way you eat or cook…The Chinese-inspired dishes that will populate large chunks of the book I’m currently writing wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for her.”

In 1964, when Chen and Thomas divorced, she became the primary caregiver of her children. She did not let her ex-husband contribute financially because, Stephen believes, she felt she was fully capable of caring for them on her own.

“Here you have an Asian woman who comes to America, who eventually gets divorced, who’s running a restaurant, raising three kids, and doing a TV show and developing products,” Stephen says. “It’s just some drive.” The Chen children also chipped in. Henry, Helen, and Stephen each worked in Chen’s restaurants and, later, in her cookware and prepared food businesses. Stephen was filling duck sauce and mustard containers by age six.

In 1966, just as Julia Child’s The French Chef was taking off, producers at Boston’s public broadcasting station, WGBH, approached Chen about filming her own cooking show. She filmed 26 episodes under the same producer and on the same kitchen set as Julia Child, albeit surrounded by Chinese ornaments and introduced with a wind chime. In each half-hour episode, she cheerfully walked viewers through the intricacies of Chinese food preparation, teaching them to soak dried mushrooms, fold dumplings, and prepare Peking duck with the help of a bicycle pump.

The show, the first nationally-syndicated cooking program to be hosted by a woman of color, was one of six in the U.S. to win a Reader’s Digest educational television award in 1967. Chen’s can-do approach to a cuisine that was, to many Americans, exotic, earned its fair share of fans. A letter saved by Chen and now Stephen reads: “CONGRATULATIONS!! I think your show is FABULOUS. Even though I’m a boy I enjoy your program an awful lot. I’m going to spread the news quickly. Keep up the good work. Your loyal fan, Brian Hussey.”

Chen sitting down to hot pot in 1972.
Chen sitting down to hot pot in 1972. Courtesy Stephen Chen

While The French Chef went on to record 10 seasons on the very same stage, Chen’s show was not renewed for a second year. The demise of Joyce Chen Cooks has been the subject of speculation by the Chen family as well as food writers. Was it because Chen had business interests that WGBH saw as eventually conflicting with the show? Because she did not nab a corporate sponsor in an era of rapidly expanding, costly color television? Or can it be attributed to the more obvious answer: that the 1970s United States wasn’t ready to embrace a Chinese, female chef who spoke accented English?

This was a complex time for Chinese culture in the United States. On the one hand, Helen remembers that even in Cambridge, “the perception of the Chinese in the United States was actually very poor.” During the Cold War, the Red Scare melded with long-simmering anti-Chinese racism to create an image of Communist China as a sinister, barbaric enemy. This archetype fueled a spate of 1960s Hollywood films, such as the 1962 Oscar-nominated thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which follows an American prisoner of the Korean War who is brainwashed by communists in the Chinese-Russian region of Manchuria.

Stories like this proliferated in the media during a time when many Americans had little exposure to Chinese history, or people. Anti-Chinese immigration quotas were lifted only in 1965, and Stephen and Helen say that they learned nothing about Chinese history in school.

On the other hand, in the years after World War II, the U.S. government built diplomatic—and often imperialistic—relationships with non-communist parts of Asia like Japan, Hong Kong, and Polynesia. Americans became fascinated by the cultures of these new allies, particularly by their cuisines. In the 1950s and ’60s, quasi–Pacific Islander tiki bars took off in the mainland U.S., and in the mid-1960s, Los Angeles’s Kawafuku became the country’s first sushi restaurant.

At the same time, a group of savvy Chinese emigrés found that they could make their way into Western hearts by avoiding politics and emphasizing the parts of Chinese culture that Americans were most excited about—including, of course, food. From Los Angeles to Cambridge, progressive Americans flocked to eateries decked out with conspicuously “Eastern” decor such as pagodas, fish ponds, and bamboo. Chen’s contemporary, Sylvia Wu, served the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Cary Grant at her Los Angeles institution, Madame Wu’s Garden, from 1958 to 1998.

Chen hoped that through her cooking, she could dispel anti-Chinese sentiments. Helen says her mother “wanted to show Americans about China because there [was] a lot of misunderstanding, and there was a fair amount of prejudice.” Chen was also a founding member of the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association, which brought the area’s Chinese residents together while educating others about Chinese traditions. She often used her restaurant to host the center’s events, which included performances by Chinese opera singers and instrumentalists. When the U.S. Navy gifted a ship to the Taiwanese Navy, Chen toured some 40 Taiwanese and American officers around the city before hosting them for a dinner. She even used her restaurant to hold a fashion show in which friends walked around the dining room in high-collared, silk qipao dresses. “She always said, ‘food brings people together,’” Stephen remembers. Helen recalls one guest saying, “The restaurant was more of a cultural exchange program instead of a restaurant.”

In movies and television of the 1970s, “there was nothing really about the people part of China. It was more like news reporting or visiting the Great Wall,” Stephen says. Helen believes her mother long harbored a dream of introducing Americans to the people, places, and foods that she knew and loved with a documentary set there. There was only one problem: Like everyone else who fled the Communist Revolution for the United States, she could not return.

In 1972, everything changed when Nixon ate Peking duck and sipped baijiu with Communist Party officials in Beijing. The dinner soothed some simmering tensions, whet Americans’ appetites for Chinese food, and signaled a turning point in American relations with China, which Nixon hoped could give the U.S. leverage against Russia. When China started offering Americans’ tourist visas, Chen immediately planned a trip to visit long-lost family and, she hoped, film a food documentary. She pitched the idea of a video travelog to WGBH, who were intrigued, but refused to sponsor the film without seeing the footage first.

Stephen stands in front of the Great Wall in 1972.
Stephen stands in front of the Great Wall in 1972. Courtesy Stephen Chen

Chen was undeterred. During the summer of 1972, weeks before she and her two youngest children were scheduled to fly to China, Stephen, who had some experience with photography, stopped by WGBH to learn the basics of how to use a video camera. After a crash course, they sent him around Cambridge to take some video on eight rolls of film. When he developed them in their dark room, seven of the eight rolls emerged with no images on them. “I guess maybe I didn’t load it right,” Stephen says. “I said, ‘Oh, gee, really?’ The pressure was on me. I said, ‘I really gotta do a good job with this. I can’t screw this up.’”

If Stephen, then 20, could pull off the camerawork, Helen, then 26, would handle the sound and take notes on their travels in her journal. It wasn’t just that Chen didn’t want to pay for professional staff; she knew that bringing a film crew to China would raise eyebrows in the Communist Party. Henry, meanwhile, stayed in Cambridge to look after the restaurants.

Attempting to put together a food documentary about life in a totalitarian state under these constraints might seem like a bold move. But to Stephen, it was typical of his mother. “My mom had this idea: If there’s a door, don’t ask permission if you can go through that door,” he says. “Just go through that door and see if someone stops you.”

The Chens arrived in Hong Kong on August 31. While there, they purchased gifts, camera film, and a video camera. They took the goods to the Hong Kong–China border, where Communist Party officials regarded the film rolls suspiciously; they officially limited the number of rolls to under 30, and the Chens had about 300, Stephen says. After a nervous wait, the Chens and their film were allowed to pass. “I guess someone made a call to Beijing, and someone said, ‘Let them go through,’” Stephen says.

He suspects that officials had a good idea of what the Chens were up to. This was the latter half of the Cultural Revolution, when Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong unleashed a devastating campaign to root out dissent. The most violent part of the revolution, marked by rampant beatings, humiliations, and murders, ended a year earlier with the termination of military rule. In 1972, one of the movement’s final years, Chinese citizens lived in an uneasy, relative peace.

It was in this fragile tranquility that Stephen captured what he calls a “three-dimensional” view of a country whose complexity was often flattened in American media. “Growing up,” he says, “my vision of China was just farmland and farmhouses,” he says. Through his eyes, viewers see bustling coastal cities, lively performance theaters, and stately banquets, in addition to bucolic villages.

Chen at a train stop waiting for a snack.
Chen at a train stop waiting for a snack. Courtesy Stephen Chen

As it turns out, Stephen was more than up to the task of capturing his family’s experience for an American audience. The documentary’s first images of China are romantic landscapes of trees rushing past train windows, followed by an aerial view of Guangzhou’s leafy, terracotta sprawl.

Chen and her children take turns as narrators. When they enter China from Hong Kong, Chen comments on how things have shifted since her childhood. “The trains haven’t changed much, but they are cleaner and much more organized,” she narrates while she, Stephen, and Helen travel by rail to Guangdong, their first destination. As the screen cuts to a close-up of onions, peppers, and juicy chunks of beef frying on a wok, she adds, “We were really surprised how good the food on the train [was], and how reasonable in price…My son Stephen’s favorite: beef with onions.”

When the Chens visit a school later in the trip, young girls in matching red outfits sing and dance in front of the camera. “When I was growing up, women could not be independent,” Chen narrates. “It was hard for women to find a good job. Now women are the same as men. They are even in the army.”

Things had indeed changed quite a bit since Chen’s childhood. The 1949 Communist Revolution outlawed arranged marriage, foot binding, and concubinage, and liberalized divorces, all in an effort to improve the status of women. For the following two decades, the government encouraged women to join the labor force in huge numbers, in fields such as manufacturing, agriculture, and education.

Children performing in 1972.
Children performing in 1972. Courtesy Stephen Chen

During the school visit in the film, while a coed group of students dances and smiles, Helen waxes about the improved status of women in Mao’s China. “The position of women in China has changed greatly,” she says. “And now 90 percent of the women work. Abortion is legal…there is a Chairman Mao quotation that goes, ‘Women are half the sky.’”

Alas, the country was no egalitarian utopia. In the mid-1950s, the government, facing a saturated labor market, encouraged women back into the domestic sphere before reversing course a few years later. And a decade after the Chens’ visit to China, the One Child Policy would prompt Chinese parents to kill or disown baby girls, a phenomenon that served as painful evidence that sexism had not vanished. Still, in the 1970s, with women increasingly independent from men, and working and attending higher education in record numbers, young Chinese women did enjoy many opportunities that Chen’s generation could not.

Helen and Stephen enter this new China with the wide-eyed excitement of American tourists. As images of the banks of the Pearl River glide across the screen, Helen says, “I noticed that a lot of people were wearing these marvelous looking plastic sandals. So I tried on a few and bought a pair I liked.” In Shanghai, Stephen puts his experiences in American terms, saying that the city has “almost like a New York atmosphere.” As he speaks, the camera pans across a mix of Chinese and European colonial buildings, some of them festooned with Red Party banners, and the streets between them bustle with pedestrians.

At the same time, within the film’s first minutes, it becomes clear that Helen and Stephen can, with a few costume adjustments, blend into the country in a way few other Americans could. Helen describes learning to fit in after people followed her around Shanghai, curious about her accent and American clothes: “My aunt said, ‘You could try wearing your hair in pigtails. Don’t wear any skirts and don’t wear bright colors.’ The pigtails worked fine when I went out.”

As young Chinese-Americans raised (and, in Stephen’s case, born) in the United States, Helen and Stephen were in a rare position to guide Americans through this once-forbidden land. “We saw China through their eyes as Americans that could broker more easily into Chinese culture,” says Cindy I-Fen Cheng, author of Citizens of Asian America and professor of American history and Asian-American studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. “We saw it with fresh eyes. We’re like, ‘Look at the wonders!’”

In addition to their dual identities, the Chens had one more powerful tool at their disposal for making China accessible to stateside viewers: food. The first mouth-watering shots come six minutes into the documentary, when the family makes one of many munchie stops on a train to Shanghai. At the train stop, people crowd around a vendor selling plump dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves and the camera zooms in on a man eating in rapturous pleasure.

Helen (left) and Joyce Chen eagerly watch a chef slicing Peking duck.
Helen (left) and Joyce Chen eagerly watch a chef slicing Peking duck. Courtesy Stephen Chen

Food has long been Americans’ favorite way of engaging with Chinese culture, Cheng says. Here, the food shots “gave the audience exactly what they wanted to see.” Throughout the Chens’ journey, the narrative breaks to cooking close-ups, such as eggs and vegetables stir-frying on a wok to make the “imitation crab” that Chen’s sister serves them in Shanghai. These shots were added during post-production in Massachusetts and were sure to get viewers’ stomachs rumbling.

As the Chens take in the sights of Southern and Eastern China, they feast on its delicacies. In the picturesque city of Hangzhou, they so adore the famous “Westlake fish,” a whole fresh carp cooked in a sweet and vinegary brown sauce, then garnished in julienned scallions and ginger, that they eat it three times, and they visit a farm that grows the local sweet olive flower, one of Chen’s favorite ingredients.

When the family visits a market in Beijing, Chen notes that citizens need ration tickets to purchase oil, rice, and wheat flour. This was a key feature of China’s planned economy, a three-decade experiment that reorganized household farmers into communes and food markets into distribution centers. This, and the fact that China’s economy was still recovering from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution’s early years, meant that eating one’s way through Beijing and Shanghai like the Chens would have been a distant dream to most ordinary people at the time.

As visitors, the Chens primarily ate in hotels, and the abundance available to them there is what viewers witness, far more than any images of scarcity. Once again, their Chinese-American status gave them special privileges, as they could stay in both the hotels reserved for “foreigners” as well as those for “overseas Chinese” from places like Malaysia and Singapore. They often invited their family members to these meals. The film includes photographs of the Chens raising glasses with their local kin around stocked dining tables, but behind the scenes, the Chens’ relatives carried away all of the leftovers—even discarded bones—in plastic bags.

Chen with salted ham at a train stop on the trip.
Chen with salted ham at a train stop on the trip. Courtesy Stephen Chen

Still, the Chens’ food adventures provided charming vignettes of everyday life in 1972 China. “This is the first documentary that I saw that had an incredibly positive view” of the Cultural Revolution–era People’s Republic, says Cheng. Across Shanghai, people of all ages perform exercises in perfect union at 7:45 sharp every morning. “Very old people as well as very young, stretching their legs, touching their toes, walking, just breathing in the fresh morning air,” Helen narrates in the film.

The Chens also visit a number of workshops that showcase traditional crafts. In one, women embroider photorealistic images into silkscreens; in another, men carve radishes into what look like flower arrangements. The film’s focus on food, art, and everyday life “kind of takes the threatening edge of communism away,” says Cheng.

When they look back on the footage today, Helen and Stephen say the positive impressions of China that they share in the film are genuine. At the same time, they also knew there were limits to how much their film could expose the People’s Republic’s shortcomings without putting their family members who still lived in China in danger. Some relatives, wary of drawing unwanted attention to themselves in the years after the Communist Revolution, avoided Chen and her children when they heard they were in town. The ones who didn’t had to debrief the police about their conversations with their American relatives.

“In Shanghai,” Stephen says, “I always felt that we were kind of being followed.” He remembers going on long walks through the city and noticing the same young man near him, over and over. With an understanding of his film’s limits, Stephen chose not to pull out his camera inside department stores in downtown Shanghai, which, despite displaying television sets in their windows, were empty inside. In moments like these, which he says were rare, he would avoid filming so as not to offend the people around him—or the Chinese government.

Peking ducks roasting in 1972.
Peking ducks roasting in 1972. Courtesy Stephen Chen

In the large cities that the Chens visited, they had free rein, and they stumbled into the documentary’s pedestrian scenes, panoramic vistas, and outdoor performances all on their own. Their visits to schools and artisan workshops, on the other hand, were arranged by a guide from a government tourist agency. The scenes from these tours are delightful, but some of the film’s most poignant moments come when the Chens choose their own path. While on a drive through the countryside, the family passes a group of children picking radishes in a field. “My mom said, ‘Can we stop the car?’” Stephen recalls. “And the guy stopped the car and we got out and she started talking to the kids.” The result is footage of children smiling as they hold enormous radishes in their hands, then lining up along a row of crops and tossing vegetables to one another.

The film’s innocuous subject matter provided enough cover for the Chens to offer candid observations about communism. In Beijing, the family visited a market filled with piles of colorful vegetables. After Chen explains that many ingredients there are rationed, she remarks, “The market in Peking is much more organized than before. There is no competition because it is owned by the government.”

Also in Beijing, the Chens visit the Red Star commune, one of the country’s premier communal living homes. Stephen speaks glowingly about it, especially its senior-living home: “They seemed very happy. People would walk around, and they would help each other,” he says. “It was more of a community feeling.”

This isn’t to say the film skirts negativity about China altogether. In a segment on National Day, which commemorates the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Helen says that her mother noticed people erasing anti-American banners throughout Shanghai. The Chens join a large crowd watching actors perform a pantomime starring an American soldier. The short ends with an actor dressed in red aiming a rifle at the G.I., who keels over and flails his arms in mock death.

“My mom just said, ‘Film it. Just film it,’” Stephen remembers today. “Being, I guess, the obedient Chinese son, I said, ‘Okay.’ And I just filmed it and no one stopped us.” In the film, after Stephen’s footage of this skit plays, Helen says, “As Americans, we were stunned, but it was the only unpleasant experience of its kind that we had there.”

Plentiful vegetables at the Peking market in 1972.
Plentiful vegetables at the Peking market in 1972. Courtesy Stephen Chen

Helen was three years old when she left China. As a junior in high school, she yearned to get in touch with the culture of the land her family had fled, so she enrolled in summer Mandarin classes at Harvard, where she was a lone Chinese-American high schooler in a class full of non-Chinese linguistics graduate students.

Some eight years later, her trip to China was a long-awaited homecoming. In the documentary, Helen and Stephen bond quickly with their relatives, none of whom were able to receive word that Chen and her children were visiting ahead of time. When Helen’s cousin holds her hand and shows her around Shanghai, she says, “I felt very very close to her. And I felt not as a tourist would; but I was home.”

Toward the beginning of Joyce Chen’s China, Helen looks into the camera and recalls the first days of her visit. “When I got there, at first it felt a little strange,” she says. “But then I realized: This is not a strange country for me. It’s my country, and my people, and my real relatives in the flesh—not only photographs.”

To Cheng—whose book, Citizens of America, deals with racism toward Asian Americans during the Cold War—this moment was striking. “I do find that to be bold and unique,” she says, because for most of Helen’s life in the United States, Communist China was viewed as an enemy, and Chinese-Americans like her were under heavy pressure to disavow the People’s Republic. It would have been rare, Cheng imagines—and, in some cases, dangerous—for a Chinese-American in 1972 to call China “my country.”

Moments like these put the film at the forefront of a revolution in Asian-American identity in the 1970s, Cheng says. On the heels of the Anti-War and Black Power movements, Asian activists in the U.S. were beginning to replace “Oriental” with “Asian-American,” a unifying term that signified pride in their Asian cultural heritage after years of having to be “American first.” In the wake of Nixon’s visit to China, this was the first time that Chinese-Americans like Helen and Stephen could “not only go home, but be proud that they’re from China,” all on a nationally broadcasted program, says Cheng.

By the end of the visit, Helen and Stephen are so close to their long-lost relatives that they have trouble saying goodbye. Before leaving China, they go to their mother’s ancestral village to visit their uncle’s grave, and they meet several generations of family members. “Just within two days, we were like old friends,” Stephen says.

The final moment of their visit to the village finds them at a train stop, staring sadly at their relatives as their 71-year-old uncle’s eyes well up with tears. After a hug (“the American way,” Chen calls it), they board the train. “It was a very quiet ride,” Helen says. “We’re all thinking the same thing. Their last words to us were, ‘Promise you’ll come back soon.’”

Chen (third from left) with family and friends at a dinner in Shanghai.
Chen (third from left) with family and friends at a dinner in Shanghai. Courtesy Stephen Chen

Stephen returned to Boston in November with around seven hours of footage from their two-month trip. WGBH was impressed and wanted to turn it into a one-hour show. There was only one catch: Higher-ups at the station were afraid that what the Chens had filmed would be too pro-China, and they wanted to balance it out with a segment that would be more critical of the country they had visited.

Today, Stephen does say that parts of the movie were circumscribed by government tour guides and his own hesitation about capturing politically sensitive topics. But he and Helen maintain that Joyce Chen’s China was shot as a culinary travelog, not a political exposé. And since its catalyst was reuniting with family members for the first time in decades, the Chens’ journey was an inherently positive one. “It’s our experience that we were trying to show,” says Stephen. “So I don’t think we were there to make a political statement.”

One of the producers strongly agreed, but WGBH ultimately decided to tack a 20-minute talk show–style segment featuring John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist and regular visitor to Chen’s Cambridge restaurant, and Edward Klein, a Newsweek editor, to the end of the 40-minute documentary. “I didn’t think it really added much,” says Helen. The closing segment was “more of what was happening anyway: news reports.”

The station draped their set with Chinese scroll paintings and placed a red-clothed table covered with porcelain dishware in its center. At the beginning of the segment, Galbraith, while fiddling with his chopsticks, asks Chen, “Do you have the feeling…that there is, [at the] back of this society, some more privileged bureaucratic or ruling class?” After he and Klein push Chen on the subject, Stephen points out that a relative of theirs is a member of the People’s Congress, and he and his wife have a maid, but they live in a simple duplex and their adult children work in a factory without any special treatment.

Chen's success took her across the country, like this cooking demonstration in downtown Denver in 1980.
Chen’s success took her across the country, like this cooking demonstration in downtown Denver in 1980. Denver Post / Getty Images

“Did you have any feeling that [people in China] were uneasy about this sudden—this really dramatic transition from a very traditional role of women,” Galbraith follows up, “to one where there is considerably more equality between the sexes than there is in Massachusetts?”

“I don’t think so,” Chen responds, citing women’s newfound freedom to divorce men and live independently. When Galbraith turns to Helen and asks how the young Chinese women she met felt about their place in society, Helen replies that in conversations with cousins, “They asked me questions, for instance, about what different girls wore here, and about dating,” before laughing and saying, “but we didn’t talk about women’s liberation.”

Cheng sees this segment as indicative of how Chinese-Americans were often treated as suspiciously sympathetic to America’s communist enemy. What’s remarkable about the Chens in this moment is that they “didn’t feel a need to bash on communism,” she says. Their message, in Cheng’s words: “China’s not so bad, people.”

Joyce Chen’s China aired on public broadcast channels all over the United States in 1973, to positive reviews. Many critics appreciated the Chens’ mission to get past politics and into the stuff of daily life. “Don’t expect sweeping, panoramic camera vistas or scholarly probing,” the New York Times wrote. “As happy, observant tourists, the Chens record personal vignettes of schools, factories, street scenes, farming, and train travel. In its informal, marginal way, the entire program…is revealing indeed.” The Oakland Tribune summed it up as a “present-day view of China as seen through the eyes of Joyce Chen.”

Stephen remembers being praised for his camerawork by the Boston Globe and was even recognized in a store by someone who had enjoyed the film. For a moment, he considered going into film professionally, but he got caught up in the family business, which by that point spanned restaurants, cookware products, and prepared foods.

He and his siblings had to step up their involvement due to their mother’s health, which began to decline in the years after the documentary. In 1976, Chen dropped a gallon-sized glass jar of stir-fry sauce onto her hand and had to undergo surgery to repair her damaged nerves. In the years following, she struggled to remember important facts, such as the phone numbers of food vendors she did business with, and was diagnosed with dementia. She retired in 1983, splitting her business into three parts—one for each of her children to manage—and died in 1994.

It’s been 50 years since the Chens released their documentary about life in China. Today, Stephen, 71, and Helen, 76, live a short drive from each other in suburban Massachusetts. They have each visited China several more times, and their experience with relatives in 1972 spawned relationships that continue to this day. They have also met many new family members, some of whom have since moved to the United States and Canada.

Stephen holds a photo of his mother, in his home.
Stephen holds a photo of his mother, in his home.

Stephen now owns Joyce Chen Foods, which manufactures and distributes Chinese condiments, oils, spices, and potstickers. Helen, who used to manage Joyce Chen Products, a company that manufactured cookware such as her mother’s once-patented flat-bottom wok, has since worked as a consultant for food businesses and as a cooking instructor, and developed her own line of Asian cookware and accessories called Helen’s Asian Kitchen.

The two siblings remain close, and they both look back on Joyce Chen’s China, which was recently released for online streaming by GBH (formerly WGBH), with pride. Helen says that rewatching it reminded her that the project was “special in many ways, and in a very personal way.” Stephen recalls the achievement with amazement. “To get it on PBS nationally was really something,” he says. “I was only 19 when I filmed that shit.”

To him, the power of Joyce Chen’s China lies within its nuanced look at a country that was—and, in some ways, still is—unfamiliar to many Americans.

Making such a personal film about a vilified place was radical in 1972. It would still be a brave movie to make today. U.S.–China relations are at a boiling point, and a recent survey showed that more than a third of Americans view China as an “enemy.” Stephen says that recent anti-Asian racism—such as the spate of hate crimes sparked by false claims blaming the Chinese for the COVID-19 pandemic—reminds him of his childhood, when peers erroneously blamed Chinese people for attacking the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.

In this climate, and as the Chinese government tightens its grip on foreign journalists, it’s hard to imagine such a charming documentary on everyday Chinese life being captured by a Chinese-American family and broadcast throughout the United States. In this sense, Joyce Chen’s China is a welcome antidote to troubled times, even today. The Cold War may be over, but now is as good a time as ever for an armchair trip through the Chinese countryside.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.

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